BMW's Mini, launched in 2002, had already sold a million models by last year. And the small car certainly meets the needs of many of today's gas-pump-leery consumers. But did you know it's not the first Mini? The original (born 1959, died 1999) was almost named "Global Car of the Century" in 1999 by the world's auto journalists, finishing second to Ford's Model T.
The original Mini (the name comes from the Latin "minimus") only sold around 10,000 cars during its short time in the U.S., but the 5.3 million models sold worldwide make Mini the most popular British car ever. It also saw racing success, was driven by various Beatles and inspired the first mini-skirt. Steve McQueen and Enzo Ferrari owned Minis. And Mini's van can lay claim to being the first, well, minivan. Early Minis are still collectors' items because of their cute looks and go-kart-like handling. In keeping with the original Mini's size (1,250 pounds), here's a brief history.
Ordered by the British Motor Corporation because of petrol rationing in the United Kingdom after the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, the Mini was designer Alex Issigonis' baby. By using front-wheel drive (now almost universal in cars), mounting the engine transversely and moving wheels to the corners, Minis gave most of their space to people and cargo. The trunk lid could stay open to carry more luggage and sliding windows allowed Issigonis to fit a bottle of his favorite brand of gin in the door. Four-cylinder, 34-hp engines powered Austin Mini-Minor and Morris Mini-Minor, the first models. (The Austin and Morris names disappeared by 1969.)
There were seven marks, or generations, of Minis and numerous models. In addition to Clubmans (small wagons), 1275GTs, and Countryman and Traveller "estates," Mini made pick-ups, vans and the Moke. This jeep-like vehicle, featured in the 1967 British cult classic TV series "The Prisoner," is still seen in places like Barbados.
Why, you may ask, are current Mini models designated "Cooper" and "Cooper S"? In 1961, John Cooper, a successful designer/builder of rally and Formula 1 racecars, saw Mini's racing potential. His first 76-hp Mini Coopers won the Monte Carlo Rally four consecutive times (1964-1967), though one winner was disqualified on a technicality.
Minis' brief American stay (1960-1967) ended when it couldn't pass new U.S. environmental standards. By 1985, most Minis had been made and only special models kept the nameplate alive in the 1980s and '90s.
The current Mini, now owned by BMW, is not technologically related to the old Mini, though they share front-wheel drive and transverse engines. Mini, which started with Cooper and Cooper S models, has branched out, with each adding convertible and Clubman versions. And the new John Cooper Works Hardtop and Clubman models - with tuned, turbocharged 1.6-liter, 208-hp inline four- cylinders - continue the nameplate's racing tradition.
Mini's MSRPs range from $19,200 (a base Cooper) to $31,450 (a John Cooper Works Clubman), but you can spend four figures on options, like $1,250 for an automatic transmission or $2,000 for a navigation system. An inline four powers Coopers (118 hp); a turbocharged version gives Cooper S models 172 horses. (All convertibles have slightly less power.)
Today's Mini has twice the weight and power and is around 20 inches longer and wider than a 1960s Mini. But today's Mini has work to do to match the old Mini's record, which includes:
"World's Greatest Car Ever" (Autoexpress magazine)
"European Car of the Century" (1999 world auto journalist poll)
"Car of the Century" (Autocar magazine)
"Number One Classic Car of All Time" (Classic & Sports Car magazine)
Not bad for a cute little car that started with just 34 horsepower.